BUDGET 2016 - Shaping our future together/Transforming the economy

Breather for marine firms, with levy hikes deferred

Managing director Lee Ee Win at OceanMaster Engineering welcomes the Government's move to help marine companies affected by the downturn in the oil and gas industry, but he fears that the only way to sustain his business in the long run is to move it
Managing director Lee Ee Win at OceanMaster Engineering welcomes the Government's move to help marine companies affected by the downturn in the oil and gas industry, but he fears that the only way to sustain his business in the long run is to move its labour-intensive operations abroad.ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

For offshore marine firm OceanMaster Engineering, the year-long deferment of foreign worker levy hikes offers a bit of a breather amid the challenging headwinds buffeting the oil and gas industry.

"We're up against very challenging times now, and everyone is cutting costs, so it's a good thing there won't be any increase in levy rates. There's no additional burden," managing director Lee Ee Win, 37, told The Straits Times.

The company, which specialises in offshore and marine repair and engineering, has about 110 employees, of whom nearly 70 per cent are foreign workers. "It's encouraging to see the Government has recognised that marine companies need help, given the downturn," said Mr Lee, adding that firms should also use the opportunity to "take a good look at implementing cost controls".

But he remains unconvinced that the move will translate into significant help in the long run.

Manpower constraints and costs have been a longstanding problem for the company, especially because it operates in a sector that cannot do without skilled hands, said Mr Lee.

"It's good that the Government is getting companies to employ more local people," he noted, referring to the tight policies on foreign labour that are in place today.

"But if they want to do that, they must also make sure there is a steady pool of local workers who are willing to take on the rough work.

"Most Singaporeans these days want to move up to managerial positions.

"Who else can we get to do all the hands-on work, if not the foreign workers?"

Manpower expenses are the largest cost component for the company, accounting for 40 per cent.

That the difficult industry conditions are unlikely to turn around this year or the next only adds to the pain, said Mr Lee.

"For service providers like us, it seems the only way to sustain the business is to move the labour-intensive operations out to countries where the costs are lower."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'Breather for marine firms, with levy hikes deferred'. Print Edition | Subscribe